Time to Talk with Iran

BERLIN – The recent comprehensive assessment by America’s spy agencies about Iran’s nuclear program and ambitions – the so-called “National Intelligence Estimate” – has opened the door to fresh strategic discussions among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. Such a strategic reconsideration is probably most necessary for those in the Bush administration (and a few elsewhere), who until recently have been prophets of imminent danger.

For Europeans, the NIE has not removed, but rather confirmed, the concerns that in 2003 prompted the EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany) – namely, that Iran’s nuclear program could eventually give it a military nuclear capability, and that even before that point, it might trigger regional nuclear proliferation.

The NIE also confirmed two assumptions that have since guided European diplomatic approach: Iran reacts to external incentives and disincentives, and taking legitimate Iranian interests into consideration is the best way to influence Iran’s leaders. Most Europeans who have been dealing with the issue also assume that Iran is aiming at capacities that would eventually make available all options, including quick development of a nuclear weapon, rather than actually acquiring, let alone testing, a weapon and thereby violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So concern about Iran’s nuclear program is still justified. The robust diplomatic approach that is needed to confront the problem must include three components. First, it should be based on a broad international consensus. Second, it should clearly communicate that the issue is proliferation, not the nature of the Iranian regime. Third, any further sanctions should be accompanied by an earnest offer of dialogue and engagement.